The Third Skin: Towards a Metaphor for Inter-Group Dialogue

Published May 22, 2018 by Dr Stipe Odak

Identity, Bosnia And Herzegovina, National Identity, Religious Identity, Dialogue

Stipe Odak reflects on challenges of identity in post-conflict settings and proposes an image of the 'third skin' as a conceptual metaphor for inter-group dialogue.

We are all born into an identity, Novak said, and the identity in his view comprises a 'second skin' covering our biological skin.[1] His metaphor was an intriguing one. It suggested that social identity is constitutive of our being, something one cannot get rid of, something that enables life and protects it. At the same time, the image of a second skin leaves us wondering about its nature and consistency —does it have different layers, and if so, how do they relate to one another; is that 'second skin' a place of intimate touch or a boundary towards those who have different identities?

Novak is a young Orthodox priest, one of seventy-five religious leaders that I interviewed during two rounds of my doctoral field research in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the period from 2015 until 2017. My aim was to discover the role of religion in general, and that of religious leaders in particular, in the processes of peacebuilding. The country was not chosen by coincidence – it is one of those rare regions in Europe marked not only by centuries of peaceful coexistence between different religious and ethnic communities but also reoccurring conflicts. In such a context, challenges of identity were, and still are, unavoidable. Very often the dominant underlying emotion related to identity was one of fear – fear of biological disappearance, accompanied by the fear of cultural assimilation; fear of suppression was never far away from fear of annihilation. For communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, identity thus functioned as a protective layer over biological existence, a 'second skin' that preserved the uniqueness of the groups, and at the same time creating a bond of solidarity among their members.

Identity was also a matter of equality and (self)respect. Ahmed, a young imam from the central Bosnia and Herzegovina, compared identities to children playing with marbles - when everyone has a marble, you also want one. He said that in the context of the development of Bosniak national identity, which is related to, but distinct from, their religious identity. I realised later how the playful metaphor of a child who wants to have a marble in order to play with others is a strong image expressing the need to possess something 'of your own' – not in a way that would separate you, but include you in the game with others. Behind the desire for having, knowing and expressing an identity, there seemed to be the desire for basic equality and respect. However, as always, the game can go horribly wrong - marbles can be broken, stolen or damaged, leading to quarrels and disputes.

Aside from its protective role, identity was often a cause of exclusion, a boundary towards those who did not share the same ethnic/religious/national 'second skin'. In one of his essays, Dževad Karahasan emphasised that there are two types of boundary: the one that delineates one being from another but simultaneously serves as a mean of communication and intimacy (human skin is such a boundary), and the second one that only separates a being from everything else (Karahasan calls it a "mechanical type of boundary").[2] Referring to the dynamics of a theatre play, he underlines that a boundary between the dramatis personae is the motor of the dramaturgical movement.[3] It is only the difference of staged identities that invites for dialogue and action. The problem arises when a creative boundary loses its communicative porosity and becomes a mechanical one, producing only divisions and exclusion.[4] Two elements thus paralyse dialogue – impotent sameness that does not recognise a need for an encounter and, on the other hand, monadic differences that do not have any 'windows' towards the outside.


During one of my interviews, I asked Vasilije in what way he saw himself as a peacemaker, and he responded by saying that he walks down Baščaršija (the central part of Sarajevo) in his priestly cassock. When I inquired as to how that activity amounts to peacebuilding, he responded by saying the following: "(…) we became estranged from each other. It is important that we get used to each other (…) I think that peace is, actually, a matter of habit - that I am here, that I am not a stranger, that I am your komšija [neighbour]. It is that."[5]

The peace, in his view, is a skill of 'being together' where identities can be freely expressed and performed not as markers of mechanical boundaries protected by disinterested tolerance, but as an encounter, something that makes you say: "I am here, and I am your neighbour". Hence, peace seems to be intrinsically likened to identities that live with each other. When the 'second skin' of identity, which protects and guards, loses its communicative power, when it turns only inwards, it becomes a mechanical border, a wall that excludes and pushes away. "If my national identity stops me from approaching another person who is different, who is not the same as I, I wish I had none!" said Jakov, and added: "It is better to be without it [identity], then without humanity."[6]

Novak's image of identity as a 'second skin' left me wondering whether there is something more to it, something that functions as the 'third skin', developed in an encounter with the Other[7] and different. If we view our biological skin as our 'first skin' and the identity constructed through identification with those similar to us as our 'second skin', then the product resulting from the inter-personal and even inter-group dialogue with the Other should, I propose, be viewed as our third skin. Dialogue with the Other, especially the painful Other (the one who is in our collective memory linked to fear) creates a new layer of our personality that we do not necessarily want to integrate into our identity. It is something that we do not attach 'inside us' but to the new space that arises between ourselves and the Other. This third skin is not biological, of course, and we could simply neglect it and live without it. Many people who decide to live in communities without any contact with the painful Other can go on perfectly well with their affairs. Thus, the third skin can be very easily dispensed with, a characteristic that makes it both unique and fragile. Nevertheless, my argument is that, if created, the third skin can serve to enrich our personality, providing a different perspective on our chosen identity, and deepening it through an encounter not with the similar but with the dissimilar. What comes as a fruit of dialogue with the Other and the different is a fragile layer of meaning that neither changes our biology nor destroys our group-identity, but gives a new perspective on both of them, helping us to reconsider the solidity of our inner boundaries.

[1] Novak (Serbian Orthodox Church), November 30, 2015.

[2] Dževad Karahasan, "Identity, Tension and Conflict", Concilium International Journal of Theology, no. 1 (2015): 63.

[3] Ibid., 64–66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Vasilije (Serbian Orthodox Church), September 18, 2016.

[6] Jakov (Roman Catholic Church), November 29, 2015.

[7] I often capitalise the "Other" in order to stress its subjective meaning, to underline that the Other is not just an ambiguous source of fear, but a carrier of existence, a person different from my 'I', whom I cannot subsume under my own categories, someone that ultimately remains a mystery.

Dr. Stipe Odak was a Woolf Institute Visiting Scholar in April 2018 and is a fellow of the Belgian Foundation for Scientific Research (F.R.S.-FNRS - Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique). He obtained his PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the Université catholique de Louvain and a doctorate in Theology (S.T.D.) from KU Leuven. His main research topics are religion, collective memory of conflicts and peacebuilding.

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